Whitehot Magazine

January 2010, Languages of Futurism @ Martin-Gropius-Bau

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti Zang Tumb Tuuum, Milano, Futuristic Edition of “Poesia”, 1914
Rovereto, Mart – Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto
Archivio di Nuova Scrittura, collezione Paolo della Grazia

The Future As Now: One Hundred Years of Italian Futurism in Berlin
(Originally published in Czech translation in Literarni Noviny.)  

The centenary of Futurism’s birth has seen a spate of commemorative exhibitions throughout Europe and the United States. “Languages of Futurism,” on until 11 January 2010 at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, intends to showcase the work produced by Italian artists under the Futurist banner – though, as anyone familiar with the first radical avant-garde movement of the 20th century can tell you, the work was always secondary to the declamations pronounced in the group’s manifestos, most of which were the work of F.T. Marinetti.  

Italy was a technologically backwards country at the beginning of the last century, a fact that baffled and frustrated the cosmopolitan Marinetti, who viewed his country as a wasteland of archeological ruins and ancient relics of no value to anyone other than academics, tourists, and fetishists of a heroic past that could no longer speak to the present. Instead, he envisioned an ultra-modern Italy that would be built on speed, industry, and technological progress. All vestiges of the past must not merely be destroyed, but destroyed in the most violent manner possible. “Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice,” he famously quipped in the first of many Futurist manifestos. Initially a literary and artistic movement, Futurism would inevitably explode into the political arena – with its pro-war and nationalistic mandate, it perfectly accommodated Mussolini’s brand of Fascism, though the Futurists would later split with the Italian dictator and find themselves alienated in a similar fashion to the avant-garde artists labeled “degenerate” by Nazi Germany. “Languages of Futurism,” however, encourages us to look away from the numerous controversies provoked by the movement in order to examine the artistic accomplishments of the group.  

Futurism is unique among early 20th century avant-garde movements in that it did not manage to produce a single painterly masterpiece. Where Cubism had its Desmoiselles d’Avignon, Surrealism its Persistence of Memory, Futurism had the clumsy collaged still-lifes of Ardengo Soffici, who was certainly no match for Picasso’s cunning and technical virtuosity. In fact, most paintings typically classed as “Futurist” bear features belonging to competing movements – the paintings of Soffici and Carlo Carrà from the early 1910s are indistinguishable from the style put forth by the protagonists of Analytical Cubism, while Gino Severini held steadfastly on to the pointillism that would position him as a very late Impressionist; the works of Luigi Russolo and Umberto Boccioni derive their effects from a recognizably Fauvist color scheme; Dada Landscape (1920), a painting by Evola in which all objects have lost their identities, makes no bones about its stylistic allegiance to the Swiss-born movement; and Enrico Prampolini’s paintings show the clear influence of Surrealism. It was only towards the end of the 1910s that the Futurist painters began to edge their way towards the articulation of a coherent style, with the abstractions of Giacomo Balla, defined by sharp angles and a defiant geometricism that seemed to graphically assert Marinetti’s paradoxical techno-anarchic ideas. 

Umberto Boccioni Dynamics of a Human Body, 1913 oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5 cm
Milano, Civiche Raccolte d’Arte, Museo del Novecento

In sculpture, the Futurists did a bit better, though fantasies of a super human, such as Thayaht’s The Diver (1932), remind us of Futurism’s painful associations with Fascism. Boccioni authored the Futurists’ manifesto on sculpture, which was meant to strive for a “single form that expresses continuity in space.” Unfortunately, those who wish to see the most remarkable accomplishments in Futurist sculpture, Boccioni’s own bronze works, have to contend with photographic reproductions in the Berlin exhibition.  

Theater was of utmost importance to Futurist endeavor. At the time the Futurists rose to prominence, theater in Italy had degenerated into an imbecilic form of mass entertainment. Touring groups of impresarios presented assembly line shows geared towards the prevailing tastes of middle-class audiences with generic sets. There were no directors or scenic designers involved, and the scripts assumed secondary importance, and were often mutilated, to showcase the skills of the leading actor or actress, around whom a cult of personality would inevitably develop.  

The Futurists aimed to change all that by rigidly applying their principles to the stage and returning the theater to true artists. As such, they excelled at stage design. A recreation of the set for Le Chant du Rossignol (1917), by the ultra-prolific Fortunato Depero, is included in the Berlin exhibition, though it is the designs of Tullio Crali from the 1930s, with their eerie otherworldliness, that most resonate today.  

Given the temporal connotations of their name, one cannot avoid judging the Futurists from a contemporary platform. Viewing the ordered presentation of the exhibition in Berlin – devoting roughly equal amounts of space to literature, painting, sculpture, theater, sound, and photography – reminds us that, despite their bombast, the Futurists were unable to conjure an art form that transcended existent disciplines. This is strange, considering the Futurists’ foray into the socio-political arena; at times it seemed that they were more interested in regimenting a lifestyle than transforming the artistic scene. Ironically, it was the Futurists’ lack of foresight that ultimately crippled the significance of their movement. Their fetishization of military might, masculinized combat, and cultural chauvinism rests uncomfortably in an era tainted by recent memories of Bush’s America.  

Indeed, one might argue that Futurism in fact lives on today. You won’t see it in the artistic arena, which technology has innovated in ways that Marinetti could never imagine; art continues to bear a humanistic torch, which the Futurists would have found repugnant. No, if Marinetti and his accomplices were still alive, they would most likely be singing the praises of the unmanned drone, that feat of military engineering invented to target and kill supposed enemies of our civilization, while simultaneously destroying the lives of countless innocents unlucky enough to be in its path. It resonates beautifully with the technocratic fantasies set forth in such Futurist publications as “War, the Sole Cleanser of the World” and “The Necessity and Beauty of Violence.” And this is precisely why Futurism has no function in the 21st century; the future, as conjured by Marinetti, is something that so many of us have already become the victims of.

Ardengo Soffici, Still Life with Red Egg, 1914 oil, tempera and collage on canvas, 46 x 38 cm
Rovereto, Mart – Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Collezione L.F.

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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